Back From The Brink

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 “By far the best game I’ve been a part of”.

Those were the words of LeBron James, after Miami’s rollercoaster win over the San Antonio Spurs last night. And who wants to argue with him?

When you tune into ESPN Classic a few years from now there’s a good chance they’ll be playing Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. It was that good. The NBA Finals has featured some all-time great games—the 1976 triple OT game between Phoenix and Boston, and the 1988 Game 6 between Isaiah’s Pistons and Magic’s Lakers stand out, for sure—but this was right up there. There’s a good chance it was the best basketball game, Finals or otherwise, in the last 15 years. And it was a game that this series desperately needed. 

Other than Game 1, which the Spurs won by 4, the games in these Finals have been somewhat anticlimactic. Sure, there’s been intriguing subplots and great highlights—Danny Green’s phenomenal shooting, LeBron’s Game 2 block on Tiago Splitter, and Tony Parker’s circus shot from Game 1—but the previous 4 games had been disappointing blowouts. Game 6 was any but disappointing.

The Miami Heat improbably recovered from 5 points down with less than 30 seconds left, to send the game into overtime, off a Ray Allen 3, and eventually triumphed, 103-100. It was a game that left you physically exhausted—just imagine how it felt to actually play in it. There were endless twists and turns, but a good, logical place to start would be the 4th quarter.

The Spurs, looking to close out the series and claim their 5th NBA title had played the perfect road game for 36 minutes—it was starting to look a lot like the Mavericks’ close-out game in South Beach two years ago. Thanks largely to Tim Duncan, who had 25 points and 8 rebounds in an unbelievable ‘vintage Duncan’ 1st half—a 1st half in which he absolutely murdered Chris Bosh—the Spurs led by 10. LeBron (his name’s going to be mentioned A LOT more in this piece) was being kept relatively quiet by Boris Diaw (yep, that’s weird to type), and Dwyane Wade was back to looking like the washed-up version of himself.

Mario Chalmers, who finished the night with 20 points, and kept the Heat afloat in the 1st half when the Spurs were controlling the flow, hit a big 3 (big 3s were quite the theme from last night) to cut the Spurs’ lead to under double digits. And then LeBron woke up. Considering that King James would’ve been killed by the media if the Heat had lost this game (and some of the criticism would’ve been fair) it’s worth mentioning that he singlehandedly managed to bring Miami back into the game in the early stages of the 4th quarter.

He started to pick the ball up at half court, and drove to the basket, not settling for the jump shot. What’s more, on the defensive end—the end that many people ignore for whatever reason—LeBron was a beast. He did a fantastic job on Tony Parker, who shot 6-23 on the night, and had a massive block on Tim Duncan when the Spurs were up by 2.
Okay, so cue the bad LeBron James.

With the Spurs up by 2, after a couple of crazy Parker shots—a step-back 3 and a typically insane layup in traffic—LeBron turned the ball over on consecutive possessions.

The Spurs were daring him to shoot, but he seemed anxious to drive and kick. The Heat were forced to foul and found themselves down 5 with the clock winding down. The game seemed over. Heat fans streamed out of the arena (no surprise there) and the yellow rope was brought out to cordon off the court with the inevitable trophy presentation to follow.

The Heat had one last run in them, however. LeBron initially air-ballled a 3 (Skip Bayless must have been foaming at the mouth by this point), but Mike Miller snagged the rebound and LeBron went for the same shot and made it. Kawhi Leonard was fouled at the other end, but missed one of his free throws (the Spurs would rue misses from the charity stripe) and on the final possession of regulation Ray Allen drained a 3 in the corner after Bosh had rebounded another LeBron miss.

Chris Bosh, so often an object of ridicule–ridicule that was only getting louder after his 1st half guarding Duncan—came up with some massive plays down the stretch. The rebound and the kick out to Allen was huge, of course, but so were his blocks on Tony Parker and Danny Green in overtime.

After coming back in regulation the Heat had all the momentum—the Spurs looked like they’d been punched in the gut—and the Heat rode a couple big baskets from Allen and LeBron to win in overtime.

Of course if the Heat had lost the game all eyes would’ve been on LeBron James and those turnovers down the stretch. Post-game, LeBron was characteristically self-critical, bringing up his errors late in the game. But with Miami’s improbable victory, criticism has to be leveled at San Antonio and how they managed to blow the game when it appeared done and dusted. Free-throws definitely cost them down the stretch–Parker missed one in overtime, and more importantly, Ginobli and the otherwise fantastic Leonard missed one each at the end of regulation–but the two offensive rebounds that led to Miami trifectas were absolute back breakers. And here Gregg Popovich might have to take some of the blame.

Duncan was pulled off the floor with the idea of putting 4 quicker perimeter players on the floor, who could get out to the Miami shooters (Diaw was on the floor to guard LeBron). That left Chris Bosh as the tallest player on the floor and the favourite to snag the board once LeBron missed. It’s tough to criticize a coach as great as Pop, but he got too clever here. Duncan could’ve been hid on Bosh—Bosh can hit 3s but it’s hardly a high-percentage shot for him. And even when Bosh was able to snag the rebound the instruction should’ve been to foul—an idea that Popovich scoffed at post-game. The Spurs paid dearly for those lapses.

But credit has to be given to Spoelstra and the Heat for the way they adjusted in the second half. Sometimes teams make their own luck and the Heat certainly played better in the second 24, than they did in the first. LeBron defended Parker well and Bosh did a much better job fronting Duncan and preventing the Spurs getting the ball inside. After Game 5 Bosh declared that Danny Green would no longer get open, so it was fitting that he blocked him on the last play of the game.

Overall the Heat backed up Bosh’s rhetoric and did a great job closing Green out. Of course it was a matter of picking your poison. Closing out on the Spurs’ hot shooters left Duncan with a lot of space inside, partially explaining his 25-point, 1st half explosion. The Spurs just needed something more from Ginobli, particularly with Parker struggling. It didn’t have to be Game 5 level production, but the Argentine was atrocious and his turnovers really hurt San Antonio. 

Heading into Thursday’s Game 7 the Spurs, whatever they’ve been saying today to the media, must be gutted. Ginobli admitted as much, stating, “I have no clue how we’re going to be re-energized. I’m devastated”. The Spurs had the championship within their grasp and they blew it. But if any team can reset, get focused again, and come out and execute, it’s the Spurs. Miami, on the other hand, will feel like they just got a second life—like someone being resuscitated after they’ve been declared dead for 10 minutes. And in theory they should have all the momentum. But since the Indiana series the Heat, for whatever reason, have been unable to string together back-to-back great games.

This is all a long way of saying that I have no idea who will win Game 7, and no one should feel confident with any prediction at this stage. Let’s just hope that the deciding game can come close to Tuesday night’s drama. Then, as basketball fans, we’ll all be winners.

 
 

 

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